Some companies approach Google’s search engine optimization (SEO) as if they’re trying to solve a mystery. They try to figure out Google Core Web Vitals with every update to their websites. But Google’s SEO ranking algorithm doesn’t run on secrets. As we’ve learned over the years, good SEO is about influencing Google to send its organic traffic to your website.
Let’s say you’ve learned how to capture Google’s attention. The next question is: Which pages on your website do you want to show up in Google’s top results?
A customer who finds your website via Google should land on a page that contains the exact items they were searching for in Google. The best landing pages contain your search bar and an already executed search with relevant results.
This article reviews the basics of SEO as it relates to your search bar — from the content you display on your search results pages to your underlying search technology. We then turn our full attention to Google Core Web Vitals, the most technical component of SEO.
What are Google Core Web Vitals?
Google Core Web Vitals assess the quality of your internal search engine. Most importantly, they examine how fast your website performs and how easy it is to use and navigate. With the increased scrutiny of Google Core Web Vitals, your SEO strategy must include building a quality search solution.
The five recommendations in this article are designed to address these concerns and improve your search UX, thus ensuring a successful handover from a single Google query to multiple queries in your own search bar.
1. Getting Google’s SEO to find your company’s site search feature
When customers query using your internal search bar, their results appear on your site search’s results page. We’ll call this search page a site SERP.
To understand the importance of a site SERP (within the context of Google’s SEO), let’s break down the two most common ways to search the Web:
- Internet search allows people to find individual websites such as Wikipedia, YouTube, Amazon, and the local grocer. In 2020, people conducted 5.6 billion Google searches per day globally.
- Site search is when people search directly on a website. For example, the search bars on YouTube and Amazon receive billions of search requests per day.
The difference comes down to this: Your search bar lets users directly search your catalog, while Google searches everyone’s publicly available catalog.
Granted, the distinction can blur with popular websites such as Wikipedia (most people search Wikipedia’s articles using Google’s search bar instead of Wikipedia’s). The same is true for IMDb and WebMD.
But the distinction between internet search and site search is clear in ecommerce. Online companies need to leverage the strengths of both kinds of search engines. People often start with Google to shop around and compare products from different websites. The challenge for ecommerce is to attract these customers and encourage them to stay and use their own search bar — that is, to browse their catalog only.
Online retailers therefore need to know how to capture Google’s SEO attention so that their products show up consistently and prominently on Google’s first results pages. They also need to know how to encourage visiting customers to use their own search bar, not return to Google’s.
How can you do that? By building a site search experience that meets your users’ needs as well as SEO and Google Core Web Vitals criteria. In the next section, we’ll talk about how you can do that.
2. Using SEO keywords and good content structure to attract Google’s attention
Users should not be forced to read much text when using your site’s search bar. They need relevant words and phrases to jump out at them. The situation is similar when capturing Google’s attention: successfully using SEO depends on the words and phrases you include on your web pages.
Google’s SEO technology operates on the likelihood that when people query about the same products, they enter the same terms. These common terms are called keywords. Good SEO requires that you add “SEO keywords” to your web pages. For example, if you have a web page that’s offering iPhones, you’ll want to include relevant keywords and phrases such as “Apple”, “smartphones”, and “iphone apps”.
Keywords help Google match your webpage to the vocabulary commonly used to search for your products. They also help Google understand the meaning and quality of your content.
However, creating effective SEO is not as simple as just adding keywords. It requires a careful analysis of which keywords to include and where and how often to place them. Google favors a good balance between keyword usage and solid, informative content. Google’s technology can easily detect keyword stuffing and penalize you for trying to trick its SEO algorithm.
Using keywords and good structure in your search results
Normally, a product catalog contains the most accurate words for describing the company’s products. However, your search results do not need to display every word you include in your catalog, only the most important: the key words and phrases that will help users immediately understand each product. If people need more detail, they can always click on an item; but the goal on a search results page is to enable easy scanning and quickly inspire to convert.
Structure also plays a role:
- You want your key words and phrases to stand out from the other elements on the page
- For Google, it’s more technical: you want your underlying code to be using the most up-to-date semantic HTML tags
Deciding which words are keywords
When deciding which words to use, it’s important to identify the terms that best describe your products, given your industry and the language of your users. It’s also important to confirm that those words are the same as the keywords recommended in keyword tools such as Clearscope and Ahrefs.
3. Having Google crawl your company’s site search results pages
Attracting Google traffic begins with having its Googlebot program “crawl” (fetch) and index your website: in essence, find your pages and what pages they link to, and catalog that information.
While this process is normally automatic — once you’ve created or updated your site, Google crawls it — optimizing your site SERP SEO requires some additional work.
Crawling your static site SERPs
Site SERPs are dynamic; they change with every query. Unfortunately, Google largely ignores dynamic content. Its crawling process won’t execute a search on a company’s website; it crawls only fixed-content (“static”) web pages. Thus, without your company doing something special, Google will never find your site SERPs.
The solution is to use an automated process called page rendering, which creates static site SERPs that Google can crawl and eventually search. Your company runs a background process that executes a set of searches and saves each search result on a separate web page, with a unique URL. This enables Google to crawl and search these artificially generated pages. For example, a company’s servers could automatically execute the query “iphone” and generate a static page with search results. The URL could be something like www.yourbusiness.com/smartphones/iphone.
Curating your site SERPs
Given the massive number of possible queries that people could enter in a search bar, companies need to be selective about which content they want Google to crawl. They should select only a subset of important queries.
Here are two of the most important site SERPs:
- A website’s landing page(s) (often their home page), where a visitor immediately sees what the company is offering, such as consumer products on Amazon or movies on Netflix. A landing page is the launch pad for all user queries.
- A page devoted to a popular item or specific category of items. For example, online marketplaces like Amazon have category pages that include whole categories of iPhones. They may also have subpages for each iPhone version, with memory and color choices and associated accessories.
Landing and category pages both use your internal site search engine to display your company’s offerings. Sometimes a search is executed by the user’s query in the search bar. Other times it happens behind the scenes, with an empty search being executed by the site in order to show the searcher a general set of items or categories of item.
There is one additional set of pages you’ll want Google to crawl: the top search results for popular keywords, facets, and products. You should do this for only a small set of your most important searches. You don’t want to flood Google with thousands of search pages, as its algorithm will penalize you for that.
In all cases, you’ll be generating a Google-friendly URL. For example, the URL for a specific iPhone version could be something like “www.yourbusiness.com/smartphones/iphone-x”; for a category page, “www.yourbusiness.comyourbusiness/brands/apple”.
Last point: regarding the process, you’ll want to run your back-end page rendering process with a frequency that is consistent with your catalog. If your data changes often, you’d run the process several times a day. However, once nightly is fine for most businesses.
4. Google Core Web Vitals: building a best-in-class site search UX
As we’ve discussed, good SEO ranking involves producing well-structured, meaningful content and using metadata such as SEO-friendly keywords, titles, and page descriptions. It also involves avoiding “dark” SEO tricks that Google would detect and penalize.
With Core Web Vitals, Google has included an additional factor: the quality of a website’s technology. The Core Web Vitals requires that site SERPs be fast and easy to use, which is all about using best-in-class technology and creating a good user experience (UX).
Google breaks down Core Web Vitals into three criteria: Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), First Input Delay (FID), and Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS). Here’s what these terms mean in relation to site SERPs:
- LCP: Top results must load within 3 seconds. Google Core Web Vitals is concerned only about the information the user sees first — the top set of results.
- FID: The search bar must be usable within 100 milliseconds.
- CLS: Many SERPs contain promotional content, images, and other visual or interactive features which, if not implemented well, can become disruptive. Google penalizes sites that are difficult to use and navigate.
Let’s look at these criteria as they apply to some sample SERPs.
The bare minimum
This is a simple search page. It checks all the Google Core Web Vitals boxes: fast, clean, no disruptive elements. Perfect…but boring. Most ecommerce site designers prefer a richer-looking search UI.
A rich search experience
This site has a more visually rich search experience. Users have different options for searching and browsing, and the business can promote and recommend products. However, if the implementation of this more ambitious UI is not done well, its complexity can slow down page loading (LCP) and disrupt users’ interactivity (FID, CLS).
This site provides a powerful interactive experience. Users don’t need to leave this page to make their choices. They can move the map, flip through many images without changing pages, compare office details, and type in new search criteria and filters. However, the site’s interactive map and inline images are exceptionally heavy to load (LCP), which can delay the availability of the search bar (FID) and disrupt the fluidity of the user experience (CLS) by loading the map and images at different speeds.
Looking more closely at examples 2 and 3, we can identify two essential features illustrating the kind of technology and UI that can have a positive impact on Google Core Web Vitals if done well:
- Search-as-you-type, instant results is arguably the most important feature of modern search — users instantly see results on their screens with every keystroke. You see instant results everywhere, for instance, in Amazon’s complex faceting, Netflix’s numerous rows of images, and Spotify’s audio diversity — with changes being made as you enter terms. Google Core Web Vitals requires that all of this information be immediately displayed and usable, otherwise it’s just noise to both the user and Google’s SEO engine.
- Merchandising and recommendations are critical parts of a successful search UX. However, if not carefully planned, they can easily fail the CLS test. Features like promotional banners, ads, product placement, related items, and sticky ads need to fit in seamlessly with the other elements on the page and not obstruct the user’s primary intentions to search and browse.
The good news is that even the most complex search UI can achieve the kind of speed and usability that Google Core Web Vitals requires.
5. Google Core Web Vitals: Building blazing-fast site search
Modern web developers have at their disposal the most advanced technology and coding techniques to meet the Google Core Web Vitals challenge. There are awesome APIs, frameworks, libraries, and languages to help them. There are also great developer tools for troubleshooting, and loads of blogs, communities, and forums supplying help. Here is how this applies to website or app search.
The speed of the network (good for LCP)
When a user searches, the information they see displayed comes from the server. For search to be fast, the engine needs to process data in milliseconds and the information it sends must be already formatted, compressed, and organized for immediate display. The less the front-end code must do, the faster the search UX.
Here’s how we have addressed these concerns at Algolia:
- We built hosted search — our API takes only milliseconds to perform a search. Therefore, the browser has 3–5 seconds to load and display what the Algolia servers have sent.
- The information Algolia sends back is fully formatted in HTML and CSS. Therefore, the front-end code, especially when wrapped in Algolia’s InstantSearch, does very little before displaying the search results. The top page in most implementations displays in less than 100 milliseconds.
Client-side only (good for LCP)
The strongest recommendation we can make is to execute all user queries in a single round trip. All queries should go from your customer’s browser to the search engine’s hosting service, and back. By using a hosting server, you can eliminate additional trips to your own servers.
Two suggestions here:
- Use CDN for all heavy images, assets, and other web elements. This is faster and more reliable than your own servers.
- Make sure all preprocessing is done while creating your searchable data. As suggested above, have all formatting and data updates processed during the data creation process, thereby avoiding any server processing while the hosting server executes the search.
Preloading (good for LCP, FID)
A web page should not have to be completely loaded in order for a user to start seeing or searching for important information. When displaying heavy elements, the front-end code should use several techniques to prioritize which parts of the screen load first, second, and last. In other words, the front-end code can load the search bar first (FID) and finish loading the top of the page (LCP) before loading the rest of the content.
Some other suggestions:
- Use CDN images to ensure speed and reliability
- Implement infinite results or pagination to avoid displaying large result sets
- Implement progressive image processing
- You should not have to worry about this kind of lazy loading if you are using low-res images, progressive image loading, and CDN
- Use lazy loading for interactive maps and other such heavy elements
Fixed grids (good for CLS)
To manage the loading process, developers can use fixed grids to load different elements at different times. The front-end code can use one grid per element. That way, each element loads without resizing the screen or pushing other elements out of the way (CLS).
Optimized Images (good for LCP, CLS)
Use small and compressed images. Image processing on the web is a large and much-discussed subject. Great optimized methods exist. The main point here is to follow best practices.
Note: Google Core Web Vitals can be tricky. For example, CLS may conflict with LCP and FID when loading diverse elements at different times (to improve LCP and FID) can make the interface appear strange to the user (degrading CLS). The solution is to set up fixed grids and prioritize the most sensible loading order.
Next steps: Taking SEO and Google Core Web Vitals to a best-in-class site search UX
Now you know about good site search SEO strategy and why it’s so important. We’ve covered basic SEO and discussed how the type of search experience that satisfies Google Core Web Vitals is fast and easy to navigate.
We’ve also illustrated the types of pages that Googling customers should land on — pages that include your search bar and display results from your catalog that match their Google queries.
The next step is to build a search experience that encourages your customers to shop and browse using your search bar, instead of abandoning you for the competitive world of Google search.